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Originally published Friday, January 25, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Local film school drop-out gets into Sundance

Calvin Reeder lasted just two weeks in film school, but he was fairly sure it wasn't the place for him after day one. "On the first day...

Special to The Seattle Times

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Sundance Film Festival: continues through Sunday in Park City, Utah (www.sundance.org/festival). Calvin Reeder's "The Rambler" can be viewed at iTunes, Netflix and Xbox Live. Carlos Brooks' "Quid Pro Quo" is scheduled for a theatrical release in May through Magnolia Pictures.

PARK CITY, Utah — Calvin Reeder lasted just two weeks in film school, but he was fairly sure it wasn't the place for him after day one.

"On the first day the teacher said, 'You won't get into Sundance, you won't make your own film. The only way you'll get work is at a TV station,' " Reeder recounted. His tone is matter-of-fact, but it could be vindicatory: Since dropping out of Seattle Film Institute, Reeder has made two feature-length films, three shorts and has been accepted into the Sundance Film Festival — twice.

At this year's festival, now in its 24th year in the mountain resort town of Park City, Utah, Reeder is presenting "The Rambler," a short film about "a quiet drifter who gets into unique situations." It screens with the feature-length "Hell Ride," a biker flick executive-produced by Quentin Tarantino. Reeder is deliberately vague when it comes to describing the content of his film because, at 12 minutes, every surprise counts. Rest assured — or be advised, depending on your taste — that "The Rambler" is an example of the independent and nonmainstream attitude Sundance strives to support.

Reeder, who grew up in Oregon and Washington, shot the short over three weekends in a desert in Eastern Washington. Like most of his projects, "The Rambler" was made on Reeder's own dime, starring him and his friends. "It takes some convincing to get my friends because my ideas are so strange," he said.

Reeder's tenacity has paid off: "The Rambler" is one of 81 shorts screening at Sundance this year, chosen out of thousands of submissions. And, thanks to his oddball shorts — all of which have been filmed in Washington — Filmmaker magazine listed Reeder as one of the 25 New Faces of Independent Film.

Last year Reeder moved from Washington to Los Angeles with his girlfriend and co-star, Lindsay Pulsipher, with the hope of furthering both their careers. "It's so easy to make films in Seattle," Reeder said. "In L.A., not knowing people, it takes a while to get your pace. But it's been a good first year. I've met people interested in producing. I'm optimistic."

The road to "Quid Pro Quo"

Though Reeder has avoided institutions, another Northwest filmmaker got his leg up through school. Carlos Brooks, writer and director of "Quid Pro Quo" — a feature appearing in the festival's noncompetitive Spectrum category — left Washington in the '90s to go to graduate school at the University of Southern California.

Brooks was raised in Bellevue and studied English as an undergraduate at Western Washington University, but always had his heart set on film. "Growing up in Washington, I didn't know how to get into the film business," Brooks said. Once at USC, "I found a couple hundred of other fools just like me. Thinking we're done. 'I got in, where's my director's chair?' "

Even after "settling in and finding like-minded people," including his wife, Helen Childress, who based her screenplay for the seminal Gen X comedy "Reality Bites" on their relationship, it was a decade before Brooks had a firm offer to direct one of his own scripts.

Then, in 2004, producers Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban approached Brooks about making a movie. It took four years from making the deal to premiering this week at Sundance, primarily because the producers were initially unwilling to cast actress Vera Farmiga as the female lead. "That stopped us," Brooks said. "When she auditioned I said, 'I'm done. She's my Fiona.' " The producers disagreed, and for 11 months, preproduction came to a standstill.

Never once did Brooks waver. "To find an actress who can make that role sympathetic and living and breathing was too good to pass up. When you find the right actor, you stick by them."

Minds changed, and Farmiga was cast after she received national attention and acclaim for her role as Matt Damon's love interest in "The Departed."

Farmiga stars with Nick Stahl (John Connor in "Terminator 3") in a story about people who pretend to be paralyzed. Some men like to dress in women's clothing behind closed doors; these people like to put on leg braces. Some attempt to lose the use of their legs permanently. "I want to know what it feels like not to feel," one character says.

Brooks is aware of the problems presented by plot summary. At the film's second screening, it was introduced as "one of the most disturbing movies ever seen," even though there is much humor in the film.

"People clenched up," Brooks said. "At the beginning, it stopped people from laughing. They were gripped by it, but in a different way. Even I felt kind of clenched."

Brooks didn't have any expectations before watching the film with an audience for the first time. "You're wrong every time. And [having] no expectations makes it interesting."

Though the film is set in New York, Brooks returned to Washington to film a key flashback scene. "I always had the tulips of La Conner in mind," he said, an area of the state he became familiar with between growing up in Bellevue and studying in Bellingham. "It's gorgeous."

Brooks describes the experience of debuting at Sundance as "just what you'd want it to be. If you make an American movie independently, you want to come through Sundance to announce it.

"The best thing about the festival is the other filmmakers. We have the same anxieties. You come in really nervous because you don't know how your movie will be received. Then when you see the screening list and that your film is just one tiny circle, it puts things in perspective. Nerves go away."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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